What is psychology?

PsychotherapyPsychology is the science of the mind. Psychological systems of our mind include thinking or cognition, personalities, emotions, perception and sensations, memory, learning, behaviour and intelligence. Psychology aims to unravel these mysterious psychological systems of the human brain so that we can understand better why we are how we are, why we like who we do, and why we act the way we do. These general questions have not changed much since the birth of psychology years and years ago. Humans have always pondered “the meaning of life”.

Psychology these days is predominantly focused on what happens when one of these psychological systems goes wrong, and how it can be fixed or improved. For example, when somebody’s emotions are predominantly sad, angry or anxious; when somebody’s perception is altered and they experience delusions and hallucinations; or when a child can not learn as well as others in school or is constantly misbehaving. These are called psychological problems or mental illnesses and are treated using psychology in a therapeutic manner. There are many different approaches that may be called psychotherapy.

Cognitive therapy

Cognitive psychologists believe that people’s psychology is the result of their thoughts.

For example, two different people can receive the same poor mark in an exam, but can feel very differently about their performances. While one person may shrug it off and not think too much about it, the other may become distressed and anxious. Cognitively speaking, that person is not distressed because of the performance, but rather because of what he or she is thinking in response to the performance on the test. It is the individual thought process that determine how a person reacts to a test score.

Therefore, cognitive psychological programs aim to change negative thinking patterns in order to decrease psychological stress.

Behavioural therapy

The concept behind behavioural psychology is that people’s actions and behaviour are responsible for their psychological state. Psychological symptoms such as phobias are viewed as learned behaviours. If something is learned, it can be changed.

Psychologists use a range of classical conditioning techniques to change behaviours. Classical conditioning is the process of conditioning a desired behavioural response to a specific stimulus – for example, when you are told a lolly you are about to eat is very sour, your mouth will salivate because you are anticipating the taste. This effect may be used to change people’s behaviours. If somebody has claustrophobia, they can be conditioned to overcome the fear by pairing the stimulus (a confined space) with a positive feeling (e.g. safety or security) in place of fear.

Classical conditioning involves a number of techniques:

  • Positive reinforcement changes negative behaviours by encouraging positive behaviours. Positive reinforcement is the act of giving a reward every time the desired behaviour is demostrated, until the reward is no longer necessary in order to achieve the behaviour.
  • Negative reinforcement changes behaviours by taking away a negative feeling or experience. For example, by telling a child they do not have to do the dishes if they behave, as opposed to telling them they will have to do the dishes if they misbehave. Negative reinforcement can occur naturally every day around us; a smoker is used to having a cigarette at 10 am every day, so, at around this time if they have not had their nicotine fix, they will start to feel agitated and stressed. Smoking the cigarette takes away this agitation and stress and therefore is said to be negatively reinforcing the act of smoking.
  • Counter-conditioning or aversion discourages negative behaviours by pairing the behaviour with a negative stimulus, so that eventually the behaviour will be avoided. For example, to stop children from sucking their thumbs, foul tasting nailpolish is put on their fingers every time they suck. After they have experienced this taste a number of times, they will avoid it and not suck their thumbs. Eventually they will stop the behaviour altogether and the nailpolish will be unnecessary.
  • Exposure therapy or systematic desensitisation exposes a person to the stimulus they avoid in order to desensitise them to the stimulus (become used to it). For example, the stimulus a person may be afraid of is a cat, so by firstly introducing a cat into the same house, then the same room and then the same area of the room as the person, they will slowly adapt to the cat. This is a very slow process that can take weeks or months.

For more information, see Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy.


  1. Myers DG. Chapter 17: Therapy. In: Brune C. Psychology 7th Edition. New York: Worth Publishers; 2003. 659-85.